What is Open Process Automation?

Author photo: Harry Forbes
ByHarry Forbes
Industry Trends

Open Process Automation is an initiative to create a new generation of automation systems with a distinctly different architecture than the Distributed Control Systems (DCS) and Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) that are used today for process automation. Because automation applications require ultra-high availability and real-time performance, process automation systems have always been highly proprietary. This is especially true at the controller and process I/O level, and this makes the systems very difficult to update or replace for a number of reasons. Advocates of Open Process Automation hope their work will eventually result in systems that are far easier to maintain, easier to update, and allow process manufacturers to focus more on improving their manufacturing processes and less on supporting the systems that automate them.

The current drive for Open Process Automation began within ExxonMobil Corporation, where a huge number of older and obsolete DCS installations needed to be replaced. Facing a huge investment over many years, ExxonMobil engineers and managers began to look “outside the box” of existing DCS products and think about how a different class of automation products could improve and simplify their future operations. Additional impetus came from the Industrie 4.0 initiative in Germany, a major drive to bring full digitalization to all types of manufacturing.

Open Process Automation Forum Goals

Today the Open Process Automation definitional work is being conducted by The Open Group and by NAMUR, a European industry organization. These groups have pledged to align their efforts. The Open Group’s Open Process Automation Forum stated their objective as:Open Process Automation Architecture (ExxonMobil)

  • A standards-based, open, secure, and interoperable process control architecture that:
  • Enables access to leading edge capability
  • Allows integration of best-in-class components
  • Preserves asset owners' application software; Significantly lowers cost of future replacement
  • Employs an adaptive intrinsic security model
  • Promotes innovation and value creation
  • Applies across multiple process industries
  • Is commercially available
  • Is an inclusive collaboration between users and suppliers to provide the framework for an open systems architecture innovation and value creation

What will these systems be like and how will they be different from today’s products? Advocates believe they will consist of many more smaller and granular components than today’s DCS and PLCs, and that these will require much more sophisticated and IT-like software tools to deploy and orchestrate the highly distributed application software on such systems. Some firms have spoken of a trend toward “software-defined automation”. Such a move is similar to system developments in other industries, especially telecommunications.

Open Process Automation is a major topic at ARC’s Orlando World Industry Forum and at other ARC events. ARC continues to research the topic and has also written a number of reports covering Open Process Automation for ARC’s Advisory Services. You can request a sample of these reports directly from ARC.

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